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Egypt's Aunt Peaceful

Ghada Shahbender Knows the Egyptian Revolution Didn´t Start in January 2011, Because She Was There Seven Years Ago Reminding the Government ¨We Are Watching¨

By Isadora Bonilla
School of Authentic Journalism, Class of 2012

May 3, 2012

When Ghada Shahbender talks about her life, she doesn’t focus on her work as a leader in Egypt´s civil resistance movement. Mainly she talks about those she loves as she describes herself as a mother, a sister, a wife and an aunt.

However, as Shahbender describes her life and work, she also talks about her “Tahrir family” – the people she organizes with and those lost in this nonviolent struggle for a Democratic Egypt and greater human rights. They, in turn, have special name for her: Khalti Silmya, or Aunt Peaceful.

“I have a huge family that I call my Tahrir family” (named for Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak after thirty years of his dictatorship) she says, noting that after almost one year of protests that have left more than 3,000 dead, she derives her strength from this family and those who have sacrificed for the struggle.

“´Freedom, dignity and social justice’ is the slogan of our revolution and until we get it we have to keep on going,” she told Narco News during the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, where she participated as a professor. “So is it painful? Yes. Scary? Yes. But will we continue? Yes. Otherwise all these deaths would have been for nothing.”

Although mainstream media made it seem as if Egypt´s civil resistance movement started when nonviolent protests broke out in Cairo´s Tahrir Square in late January 2011, Shahbender knows better.

Her interest in changing her country started about seven years ago when her four children were ages 16 to 22 years old. After a vote on an article in the Egyptian constitution, women who protested were attacked and sexually harassed by the police. Shahbender says she was surprised her children accepted the women being attacked, while she felt it was a direct attack to her values.

Ghada Shahbender during a plenary session on the Egyptian revolution and civil resistance at the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. DR 2012 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
In reaction, she helped start Shayfeen.com or the monitoring movement (shayfeen means ¨we are watching you¨), a campaign that began in 2005 to create greater government transparency through public awareness of government corruption and by monitoring elections. “We launched the movement with a press conference where we announced that we were founding a movement for monitoring events in Egypt.”

Shayfeen circulated invitations to people through internet to join the movement by subscribing to website. Reaching out via emails and bloggers, it had 515 active members before the presidential elections. It sent them all kits of stickers and coffee cups with the logo to be distributed in local coffee houses but then the government prohibited all non-governmental organizations from monitoring elections, and the young organization used this in its favor installing independent operations rooms with hotlines for receiving complaints. Two months later they had 3,000 active members. Shahbender says her husband at the time was against her early activities and she was expelled from a university in Cairo where she taught English as a foreign language. Still, she says, she never felt defeated. Instead she intensified her work with Shayfeen and Egypt´s growing civil resistance movement.

Today, although Shayfeen no longer exists, Shahbender works with the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights as a press liaison, and monitors parliamentary elections. She also advocates for those brutalized in the resistance and those who have lost friends and loved ones.

“I wear more than one hat,” she says. “I work in different projects and feel very fortunate to be in that position; to work with many different people on different projects all of which eventually pour into human rights.¨

In June of 2011, Shahbender received The James Lawson Award from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Jack DuVall, ICNC president and founding director, describes Shahbender as the perfect example of “the heart of any new movement.”

“She’s not working to be heroic, but because she knows how important her work is for the future of her country,” DuVall says.

“Her personality is very open and receptive to others´ ideas, and she is very thoughtful in a way that combines mind with heart to lead and develop strategic social action.”

According to Shahbender, the Egyptian movement is all-inclusive and must make a place for “all generations, all social classes, all genders, because if we speak of freedom it is freedom for all.”

Shahbender says this is also for ¨Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews¨ as well as racial minorities in her country like Nubians and the Bedouins of the Sinai.

“I think that as a woman I will have my full rights when every citizen, man and woman, has obtained theirs as well,” she says.

This is the Egyptian revolutions all-inclusive strategy for social action. Shahbender says when participation is widened everyone, regardless of profession, economic class or gender, should play a role in the movement. What everyone shares is the desire for justice.

“We’re often caught up in our individual struggles but we can realize that this looking for justice is the general struggle of humanity,” Shabender says. “To me, the best thing the world has to offer is diversity, and the worst thing it has to offer is extreme injustice.”

“You have a choice. You can live your entire life in your own shell. You will protect yourself. If you keep your walls up, nothing will happen to you. Not good, not bad. If you keep your walls down, you will be open to good and bad, but you can stand up again and carry on, rather than being imprisoned inside your walls.”

Before Shahbender became a leader in Egypt´s civil resistance movement, her life revolved around being a wife and mother to her children, working to provide them the best education and life available. When she helped start Shayfeen, her children didn’t care, but now she says she´s proud to include them in her Tahrir family, including her daughter who works with her in Mosireen, an organization that films and documents acts of brutality.

“Egyptian women have a very important role in this revolution. Politics marginalizes them. They’re marginalized in parliamentarian elections. They’re marginalized in the constitution, but the fact is that on the street they paid a hugely important role,” Shahbender says. “Women of different ages and different socio-economic backgrounds have paid different roles. They’ve proved to be very courageous and also victimized because they were women.”

Shahbender recalls when the Egyptian army stormed Tahrir Square on December 16, 2011, and they held a sit-in at the doors to the parliament for four days. Volunteers with Mosireen filmed the event and captured footage of women being brutally and intentionally attacked, as well as tortured and arrested.

A few days later, because Mosireen intervened, there was an all-female demonstration by Egyptian women who chanted “We will not accept this.”

Another example of women involved in the movement is the first week of February 2012 when a massacre took place during clashes between demonstrators and Cairo police on Mahmoud Street, Shahbender helped organize a demonstration by mothers.

“We called the group the Egyptian Mothers. We marched to the parliament and we met with members of parliament who then took us to meet the Minister of the Interior.”

Shahbender’s work is a 24-hour-a-day labor in which she is constantly monitoring what happens in her country. Even when she travels she remains in constant contact with her work groups and above all with the victims via Internet and her Twitter account. Shahbender has promised the families of those who died in the struggle to seek justice because that is why their loved one’s were killed, and “the revolution must continue.” This conviction can be seen in the protests by Egyptian mothers which include “women journalists, TV anchors, housewives, doctors, a young woman who was brutally beaten and tortured and an activist of the April 6 Movement,” says Shahbender. “These women are representative of what is happening in Egypt. In these protests our demand is ‘stop killing our children already!”

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